Everyday Rather Live in Classic Eras

A luxe Aïda to stave off the CD crisis

The echoing aisle of pillars that leads to the grand auditorium of the Parco della Musica, in the Parioli district of Rome, is abuzz with activity, resembling a parade of ants at a distance. A single concert performance of Aïda that concludes, on Friday 27 February, a week recording the Verdian masterpiece for Warner Classics, has all Rome in frenzy. They’re whispering that Jonas Kaufmann is a revolutionary Radames: ‘For the first time,’ they’re saying, ‘the heart of a man beats beneath the hero’s armour.’ That two women fighting for his affection, the Ethiopian slave and the Pharaoh’s daughter, are simply ideal: the spine-tingling Anja Harteros in the title role and the impressive Amneris of Ekaterina Semenchuk. An historic cast greeted with enthusiasm by Cecilia Bartoli: “It’s a marvelous evening for music, isn’t it?” – while even the president of the Senate Pietro Grasso’s entourage of bodyguards have to jostle their way through the crowd that’s gathered.

For the enterprising Alain Lanceron, president of Warner Classics, this return to ‘the good old times’ of studio recordings shows that the labels have not breathed their last. The French executive today sits at the head of an empire. In addition to its golden-goose back catalogue, Warner Classics has benefited, since 2013, from the Erato catalogue, which itself has absorbed Virgin Classics to be relaunched with funds from EMI France.

No need to mention the golden age of one Walter Legge, the mythic producer of EMI, who launched the careers of Karajan, Callas, Sawallisch and his wife, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. A glance back at the past two decades will suffice: “The majors were still producing four or five big studio opera recordings per year,” recalls Lanceron. “Today it’s become a rare event.”

Fewer risks

One of the last from EMI was in 2009. Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, with Angela Gheorghiu and, as in this case, Jonas Kaufmann: “the record landscape has changed over the last forty years,” says Lanceron. “The symphonic repertoire has shrunk considerably; opera has moved towards the Baroque. As for big repertoire, the tendency is towards recitals with singers.” The industry is flooded with reference recordings of Verdi, Puccini and Wagner. Nothing but the best from the Warner Classics EMI catalogue, which already boasts four Aïdas: Maria Callas and Tullio Serafin (1955), Birgit Nilsson and Zubin Mehta (1966), Montserrat Caballé and Riccardo Muti (1975), Mirella Freni and Herbert von Karajan (1979).

“These days we usually record live. Then we hold ‘patch sessions’ to correct all the coughing, applause and the occasional problematic notes. But the artists often tend to take fewer risks like that,” Lanceron reflects.

So why the downfall of the studio? The competing medium of DVD, the development of streaming, lower sales figures… Alain Lanceron brushes aside the first two theories. “The DVD is only the product derived from a recording that captures the visuals. Labels are content to buy the licence.” The opera collectors are extremely difficult to please: “Too many DVD productions on the market, half of them of no interest whatsoever.”

As for streaming, it’s a fact that it hasn’t yet taken over classical music. Even when pressed about the question of cost Lanceron remains unequivocal: “At the time of the first recordings in London of Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu under the direction of Antonio Pappano (Il Trittico, La Bohèmeand Tosca by Puccini, Il Trovatore by Verdi), the budgets were around three million francs, that is 450,000 euros. Our Aïda in 2015 is less than half!”

So there’ still the question of taste. The Baroque revival and the entry into the repertoire of the likes of Janácek, Britten and Shostakovich have seen bel canto and the verismo repertoire lose ground. “Today, there are hardly any singers left capable of singing it. So we held out for an Aïda for the 21stcentury!”

Choc-a-bloc Calendar

The project began in 2012 at the instigation of Antonio Pappano, the only orchestral conductor exclusively signed to Warner (formerly EMI). The Briton with Italian origins, Music Director of the Accademia nazionale di Santa Cecilia since 2005, had already earned his stripes at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, having taken up that prestigious post in 2002. “The singers love him,” affirms Alain Lanceron. “He knew how to bring the best singers on board. His perfect understanding of the voices and his charisma are precious assets when the clock is ticking for everyone.”

Putting aside a week in Rome for stars with already choc-a-bloc calendars is a challenge. It was brilliantly cast down to the minor roles: Ludovic Tézier as Asmonaro, Marco Spotti as the King of Egypt… not to mention the Orchestra and Chorus of the Santa Cecilia and the astonishing national police band, the ‘Banda Musicale della Polizia di Stato’ that will celebrate with panache the victory of Rademes in the famous Triumphal scene of Act II. Somewhat surreal that following the success of this performance, the broader public will have to wait until mid-October for the album to come out, so only time will tell if it the initial success is echoed on disc: Warner must sell a minimum of 40,000 copies to break even.

The company could hang its rebranding hat on prestige catalogue artists, as with the magnificentMaria Callas Remastered Edition complete boxed set on 69 CDs which came out in Autumn 2014; 16,000 boxed sets sold worldwide (of which 4,000 in France), the corresponding compilation La Renaissance d’une Voix achieved sales of 70,000 units. But Alain Lanceron prefers to look to the future. He has just signed the tenor Bryan Hymel and violinist Benjamin Beilman, and hints at plans for mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa. But not another project of Aïda proportions just yet…

By Marie-Aude Roux